Imagine a movie which makes you contemplate all these things and more. Now imagine the kind of filmmaking genius that could create such a movie. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Terrence Malick. There is no other filmmaker like him.
Mother, Father. Always you wrestle inside me.
The Tree of Life tells its tale in a very ethereal way, plotting out a very loose story in images and narrated musings from the various characters it follows – the focus being a family unit of five living in 50s America: the mother and father, and their three young boys. Across the course of the movie we experience what they experience – almost every little moment – from the parents’ meeting to the birth of their first child; from the toddler learning how to walk, to the curiosity he feels when his baby brother is born, and the jealousy that all of his mother’s attention is being taken. As the years pass, the children grow together, play together, and learn about life. The eldest, Jack, bears the brunt of his father’s strict nature – the dad just wants to teach him in the only way that he knows how – and finds himself conflicted between the dad’s strong, dominant and aggressive personality, and his mother’s more kindly, but also ostensibly weaker, nature.
If you’ve ever seen a Terrence Malick film (shockingly, he has only made five – Badlands, Days of Heaven,The Thin Red Line and The New World), then you should know a little bit about what to expect here. After all, Malick doesn’t tell stories in any conventional sense, he instead allows them to wash over you, drawing you in, allowing you to share in the experiences of the characters he paints – and paints is exactly the word: his productions are works of art; beautiful, broad and sumptuous portrayals of love and life. A Malick film can affect you in a number of different ways, from raising the hairs on your arms and neck; the wave of emotion hitting you full-on; to making you pause to think about your own life, and your own experiences. It is a very personal voyage.
What I want to do, I can't do. I do what I hate.
For me, it reminded me of one of my forefathers. A great man, he was often held back from being great – or sometimes even good – by life. And not just the choices he made, but also the surprises that life had in store for him. He had to deal with getting married far too young, to a woman who just didn’t understand him, who existed almost on a different plane; to deal with moving country, and establishing himself in a foreign land; with having four children – three of whom were boys; caring for them all in different ways, for reasons known only to himself; preferring one above others, incurring jealousy in one above others, and facing tragedy with one of them. In spite of this, he never appeared to struggle with his faith – or with his choices. Of course mistakes would never be spoken about, let alone admitted; apologies would never be forthcoming. He could impart great wisdom, teach you what to do or – more often than not tell you what to do – but he didn’t know how to communicate. I never knew why he was like that, what made him angry, and what kept him from ever really sharing everything he was great at, with the world around him. For me, The Tree of Life drew me right back into my childhood memories of him, for I could find almost all of these aspects mirrored here. The father in the movie, the way he brought up his children; his interaction with his wife – his jealousy over how close his wife was to the children; the arguments, the life lessons – the great pride and majesty he could show; and the inner bitterness and regrets that, left unchecked, manifested themselves as aggressive and extremely destructive behaviour.
And there will be something in The Tree of Life for everyone; something that you can relate to – as teenagers or adults recalling youth and looking back at your own parents (or indeed their parents), or as parents yourselves, drawing parallels with the choices you’ve made for both yourself and your child; at how you try to do what’s right, but are sometimes confounded by what life has in store for you. And the way in which the film deals with the impact that the loss of a loved one has on us, and how we reconcile this with the existence of God, is directly related to Malick’s own personal experiences – the loss of his own brother, at 19 – and clearly well-defined within this drama.
Malick renders the information to us in piecemeal fashion – glimpses here, longer sequences there, sometimes a few lines of narrated dialogue, sometimes an entire conversation – served up in this non-linear fashion to reflect the very nature of memory itself. He also takes his time painting the story, allowing you the opportunity to not only watch the scenes, but absorb them, digest them, and relate them back to your own memories, your own experiences. Whether it’s the first time you grazed your knee as a child, or the first time you did something you knew to be bad; those moments when you first became sexually aware, when you first experienced guilt, regret; when you first defied your parents, or had to deal with the consequences of your actions. It’s all in there, for you to take in and process, reminisce over and rummage through. It’s like Malick has taken snapshots from an average family’s life, across a decade, and spliced them all together – much like the film poster – in order to give us a taste of the story he is trying to tell, and in order for us to compare the images to our own memories and experiences.
They taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.
Often one to shy away from big A-list stars, Malick unusually cast Brad Pitt in the leading role of this movie – and it was a very good choice indeed. Pitt’s an acclaimed actor who, has earned his recognition across a succession of movies, but who, at least for me, has seldom fully broken free of the Brad Pitt-isms that make them his performances. From Fight Club to Seven, from Spy Game to even Babel; he has always been good – sometimes exceptionally so – but he has also always offered echoes of exactly the same school of acting. The same angry, shaky-hand-man, pointing and shouting. It’s not always the case, but, more often than not, it is. Yet across the 139 minute runtime of The Tree of Life we only catch a few glimpse of classic Brad Pitt. For the most part, he embodies this stoic, domineering, sometimes hypocritical, always emotionally clumsy man – complete with a puffed-out jaw, or a raised nose as if he’s looking down on those around him. There’s an air of palpable pomposity about him; and you can see why his children both fear and hate him, bullied into saying that they love him but neither understanding why they should, nor understanding why he behaves the way he does. Trouble at work? Frustrated with how your life had turned out? Regret over not having made different choices when you were younger? Through Pitt, we get hints towards the answers, always aware that the children themselves are completely unaware of any possible explanation. It’s just dad. He’s in a bad mood. He’s shouting at mum. I better stay in my room. Maybe I’ve done something wrong. I’ll have to say sorry later.
Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
The flipside of the coin is Jessica Chastain, a beautiful, graceful actress who wooed festival circuit audiences a couple of years’ back with her title role in Jolene, and who stars in the upcoming John Madden thriller, The Debt, playing the younger version of Helen Mirren’s character. Her part in The Tree of Life involves far less dialogue than Pitt, but she is just as important; a floating butterfly of a character who smiles so peacefully and lovingly; an angel sent straight from heaven, although her loose grasp on life has its own price, when those around her are not all so perfectly good and innocent. She may be a good woman, true in her faith to The Lord, but her ever-smiling demeanour simply does not work when confounded by anger, rage, and injustice. Yes, she may be a good woman, but that doesn’t make her a good mother. And, indeed, the scenes of blissful fun and frenzy – with her children playing with her almost like she were their big sister – all take place when the dad is not around. When he is on the scene, she smiles, and tolerates; and the children suffer as a result.
The children, for the first time in a Malick film, also play a huge role – at times arguably more important than Pitt himself; and, cleverly, through them, we get to see the truth behind the situation. After all, children often tell it like it is, without embellishment; without being patronising, or even diplomatic. Out of the mouths of babes. Then of course there’s Sean Penn, the only player to have worked with Malick before (taking one of the more substantial roles in The Thin Red Line) – here, with just one line of actual dialogue, and a few more in narration, he’s shockingly under-utilised. It’s not a massive criticism of the film as a whole, but if they ever do a longer cut, it would be nice to have development with regards to his character.
Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When you aren't.
Early reports about the movie threw out a number of surprise revelations – not only was this Malick’s first big foray into the area of effects, but also, apparently, he wanted these to include CG dinosaurs. Dinosaurs? Well, yes. The visuals are of paramount importance in his films – from his obsession with filming in ‘magic hour’ for the entirety of Days of Heaven (imagine how long that shoot took!!), to his fondness for observing trees billowing in the wind (both of his last two movies had plenty of this going on); he has always had an eye for beauty in nature. He is a master at capturing those orange-red sunsets and sunrises, perfect reflections in water; and basically anything to do with trees or fields, where the wind itself does the majority of the work. The Tree of Life is no exception, and after just a few minutes of ambiguous, time-shifting, non-linear ‘storytelling’, he takes us right back to where it all began – the Big Bang – and works his way slowly through the birth of the universe, using loosely prehistoric times as a stepping-stone to his return to modern day. And yes, that involves dinosaurs.
It was certainly a bold move, to drop the screen black, and, for the next half hour, have nothing but images thrown at you, with no dialogue – not even narration, and just a powerful orchestral score binding it all together. It risked pulling some viewers right out of the entire piece almost before it had even begun. “Pretentious art-house nonsense” is what they would have remarked on the way out. But even when he’s got dinosaurs on screen, Terrence Malick has a purpose. Drawing on the long-retired talents of Douglas Trumbull (the man who did the similar birth of the universe, and prehistoric earth scenes for Kubrick’s legendary 2001), this version largely avoided CG effects, in favour of old-school work: micro-examining paints, smoke, chemicals and fluorescent dyes to reproduce, on a tiny scale, an artist’s impression of the universe. And it worked. In fact, it’s only really the CG bit – the dinosaurs – that ever threatened to pull me out of the movie, an arguably unnecessary little segment which was saved by having the dinosaurs, in their brief screentime, display what can only be described as Malick-ian sensibilities. Fear not, he didn’t go all Jurassic Park on us.
In fact, any criticisms which can be levied at the film have to be taken in the context of just Malick’s filmography because, really, all of his works have generally been a cut above most anything else any other filmmaker has to offer. You can judge and criticise a Malick film for not being as good as... another Malick film. But, even then, it is head and shoulders above the nearest rival. So, when looking at The Tree of Life, I could question the use of CG dinosaurs; argue Penn’s character wasn’t explored enough; suggest that Pitt’s overriding personality wasn’t restrained for the entire movie. You could question whether he went overboard with classical scoring – whether the almost operatic (and certainly religious) feel to the music was more intrusive than effective. And, despite the manner in which it asks all those big existential questions about purpose and meaning in life and what that means in the context of the history of the universe, I certainly still took issue with his move from giving voice to those questions that we can identify with, to enforcing his view on us of what may happen after death. This will feel a bit preachy to some. Now, these may all be valid criticisms of the movie, ones which may not make his work here as good as either, say, The Thin Red Line or The New World, but this is still a movie which will have you leave the cinema and want to pause for thought immediately; to want to discuss and dissect; digest and ruminate on the whole damn package – the meaning of life, your life, the lives of those around you; your family, nature vs. nurture. It’s all in here. How would you rank that alongside, say, Transformers 3? Or Pirates 14? How would it not rank as near-perfection when compared to the average mindless, throwaway Summer Blockbuster; alongside all the movies that cost ten times as much to make, and stay for months and months at your local cinema? The Tree of Life was playing for a week. One week. And yet, there’s the potential there, within it, to make you reassess your whole life, your whole way of thinking. Yes, there may well be flaws in Malick’s vision of life; but all that does is make this a flawed masterpiece.
“He is in God's hands, now.”
“He was in God's hands the whole time... Wasn't he?”
Thankfully, for those who missed it, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Not only is it due for Blu-ray release in just a few months, but Malick is also talking about two further versions that he is preparing for release – one, an IMAX-exclusive addition, which is, essentially, a much longer expansion of the aforementioned Big Bang segment; and the second, a whopping 6 hour cut, which I can only assume must be intended for home audiences. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, especially to those who know his work, as the less-than-two-and-a-half-hour runtime of Tree of Life seemed shockingly short for a Malick movie. He clearly had a back-up plan.
As stated, some will find it hard to even make it through the whole of The Tree of Life; some will walk out within half an hour, others will yawn their way to the end and then wonder what all the fuss was about. Well, it’s no fuss really, it’s just glorious majesty; beautiful moving images, at once disconnected from the contemplative narration that plays over them, yet also bound to it by themes and feelings. Yes, it’s all about feelings; about the experience. I’ve stated it before: you don’t watch a Terrence Malick film, you absorb it. And for those who open up to The Tree of Life, there is so much to experience; so much to engage with and relate to, and just plain behold. He can make the glass skyscrapers in the Big City look more beautiful than you could ever imagine; he can capture a flock of hundreds and hundreds of birds moving in a stunning, other-worldly wave through the orange-gold sky – a pure force of nature; and he can back his visual style and imagery up with a remarkably weighty substance, and with carefully, perfectly chosen words, so that the whole experience will resonate within your very core. Behold, The Tree of Life.
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
Dedicated to my grandfather, Rev. Dr. Ernest Samuel
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
Terrence Malick’s existential exploration of faith, life, and the very world around us is a magnificent, eye-opening voyage which will leave you at once in awe of his majestic imagery, and also contemplative of your own life, and the lives of those around you. Offering up a non-linear snapshot-style narrative about an average family living in 50s America, his acute observations of life – and of human nature – will touch each and every viewer in a different way. It’s a very personal odyssey, a unique experience, a bold and daring film project, and an unquestionable masterpiece. In a summer tainted by average weather, and average blockbusters, why not try a little food for thought instead?
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